Hopeless Romantic?

I’m not sure just what it is, but every single time my kids have a school program, I’m trying to hold back tears.

EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. 

Fall. Winter. Spring. It doesn’t even matter what time of year it is, I’m like a basket case in my seat as I watch my kids do things that surprise and amaze me, that make me smile and cry all at the same time 

It’s not like these programs are tear-inducing programs. No hint of Hallmark here, but somehow or another, they still find ways of hitting me right in the chest.

Maybe some of it has to do with the fact that during every single program, at least once, I am wishing that my mom and dad were there. But I think it goes way beyond that. I think it stems from the fact that there is pride (not the bad kind) that wells up within me as I see my kids doing things that make them stand out. How can a mom or dad NOT be proud of their kids when they’re doing what kids should be doing? 

I’ll be honest, it’s an emotional time of year for me anyway. All it takes is one song to throw me back about 30 years. I’m transported to my childhood home with smells and sights and sounds that have been eternally etched on my brain. I can picture everything. Christmas tree. Pajamas. Presents. Green rug. Hi-Fi circa 1975 or thereabouts. Evie singing “Come On, Ring Those Bells” from that Hi-Fi stereo, complete with the cracks and pops that only vinyl can offer.

But like I said, I well up any time of year. These kids always blow me away. I guess it’s yet one more picture of grace that I see in my everyday life. I realize just what I have that I don’t deserve. I realize how far short I fall from being who I really wish that I was, and yet my kids still manage to keep plugging along without the help of therapists…..at least for now.

As I sat there on the hard bench of the cafeteria bench watching my middle child perform in his holiday play, I was just blown away. The kid can act. The kid can memorize. The kid can work a room. The kid can make a joke. While my eyes welled up, so did my pride as I thought, “What have I done to deserve this?”

It’s a time of year when you really see the difference between the “haves” and the “have-nots”….at least if you really look around. As much as I keep wanting, it’s a time of year that I am reminded just how blessed that I am 

Here we are, two weeks from Christmas, and I’m blubbering at the sight of an inflatable Rudolph in the neighborhood…..it might just be a LOOOOONNNNNGGGGG 2 weeks!

Deep down inside, I’m a hopeless romantic, but I guess I hide it well. Maybe it’s self-preservation and self-defense, but regardless, there’s way more emotion down deep than most people who just get a casual glance at me would really expect or imagine. I’m fine with that.

There are a lot of things to hope for during this time of year, but my biggest hope is that I can be half the man that my children and wife deserve. I am a blessed man, blessed beyond measure.

Now, let me go find a good Christmas movie to continue with my blubbering!!!

Hopes and Dreams

hopesanddreamsIf you follow the church calendar at all, you know that this past Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent. I had the privilege of kicking off our Advent sermon series called “He is greater than I.” Appropriately, the sermon was focused on Mary and her response to the news that she had received from the angel regarding her pregnancy.

As I weaved my way through Mary’s song in Luke 1, I couldn’t help but think about what kind of a disruption this might have been for Mary. Mind you, the place of women in the 1st century near East is not near where the place of women is in today’s society, but you still have to wonder what kinds of things Mary hoped and dreamed of for her future.

Regardless of those hopes and dreams, things turned out very different for the teenage girl. She had a lot of explaining to do and she probably had to put up with a whole lot of stares as she walked through town. Any chance of having been a wallflower was most likely lost as the world would eventually know her name and what she had done.

I wonder if Mary realized the full extent of what she was being called to do. Of course, that’s been speculated in the song “Mary, Did You Know?” The angel who appeared to her was pretty clear about what she was being asked to do and who Jesus was, so it’s hard to think she didn’t know. But then, what else she heard after “You will become pregnant….” might be somewhat questionable, considering.

Whatever Mary’s hopes and dreams may have been, they really paled in comparison to what she got. On a list of hopes and dreams, I’m not sure that anyone would consider “Mother of the Son of God” as one of the bullets, yet that’s just what she would become.

After my message this past Sunday, I was asked this question, “How do we reconcile God’s bigger plan with our own dreams or is it better just to skip them altogether?”

Although I gave an immediate answer, it’s something that I’ve pondered a lot since the asking. While immediate answers aren’t always wrong, I find myself continually asking myself questions long after answers to them have been given.

I had to think whether or not I had hopes and dreams for myself. If I did, what were they?

As I thought about it, it seems that my hopes and dreams as I have gotten older have grown broader than they used to be. While there are some specifics, I find myself looking at things more generally than I did before, when I was younger. My hopes and dreams center around my family, hoping for certain things for my children yet not living vicariously through them.

I want certain things for my children and my family. I want to experience certain things for myself. I want to be effective in what I do and even have some vocational hopes and dreams as well. But what happens if those dreams are never realized? What if they don’t align with God’s plan for me?

I think that I learned about disappointment before I even left middle school. So, suffice it to say that the fact that my hopes and dreams might be dashed hasn’t stopped me from still hoping those hopes and dreaming those dreams. If I’m honest, I think that I might even find that like Mary, my hopes and dreams actually paled in comparison to what reality became for me. That’s not to say that I haven’t faced my share of disappointments, struggles, and heartaches, but overall, my blessings have exceeded some of what I dreamed they might be.

As I have grown in my faith, I have realized that we can often get too specific in our asks from God. Don’t mishear me here, we need to ask God specifically for things, but I think we have a tendency to take it a little too far. I was the kid who had Jeremiah 29:11 as his senior yearbook quote, so I’ve had to grow into this myself. I think we get too hung up in whether God wants us to be an artist or an engineer, whether he wants us to have 2 kids or 4, whether we should rent a house or buy a house. I’m not saying that he doesn’t care, I’m just saying that when we ask those kinds of questions, we kind of miss the forest for the trees.

God’s got a much bigger plan and we are only a small part of it. When we get so focused on specifics, I think that we’re trying to make ourselves a much bigger part of the plan than we should be. We’re not insignificant, neither are our desires, but there are much more important fish to fry than some of the ones that I have spent my time frying in the past.

I probably dreamed of the wife and family that I would have, maybe obsessing a little too much on them before I had them, but now that I have them, I see that my dreams were tiny in comparison to what I actually got. I pursued one vocation for a decade until I stumbled into another one that I’ve been in for more than that. While I dreamed of what my career would be, I don’t think that I ever dreamed of what it has become. It almost seems as if my dreams have always fallen short of reality, although it might not have always looked that way to me.

I’m not going to sit here and mimic a certain Houston pastor who wants you to live your best life now. I won’t sit here and say that God will always let you have what’s best for you (although that may be true). What I will say is that God will always let us have what’s best for him, what will bring him the most glory. In mulling that over, we can’t forget that one of the things that brought him glory was also the thing that brought him pain, the sacrifice of his son, Jesus. If God’s glory is even costly for him, why should we think that it won’t be costly for us?

I think that what happens as we grow in our faith, our maturity, and our relationship with Christ is that our hopes and dreams align more with his plans for us. That’s doesn’t mean that we’re always aligned, but I think that we begin to want what he wants, making our hopes and dreams his will. Does that make sense?

I’m still hoping and dreaming, and I plan to until my dying day. The minute that I stop hoping and dreaming is the minute that I begin to give up, and that’s not something that I want to do.

I’m going to keep mulling this over, but for now, I’m going to go hope and dream some more! 

What If

usace frf duck.ncOnce upon a time, while I was in college studying civil engineering, I wasn’t exactly sure what direction I would take when I graduated.

I had chosen civil engineering as a major because of the diversity of opportunities that it would afford me. There were so many different possibilities of things to do once I graduated that I wasn’t quite sure which direction to take.

So, during my senior year, when everyone was beginning to narrow down their options and take senior design classes that were specific to their area of concentration, I decided to take multiple senior design classes in all of the areas that I had been considering: hydraulics, project management, and coastal engineering.

I had become interested in coastal engineering while at Lehigh University. I had taken coastal engineering and was introduced to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. My class had gone on a field trip to the New Jersey shore to observe a beach nourishment project. I was fascinated that this was a field of study that I could further pursue.

Having grown up on Long Island Sound in southwestern Connecticut, I was a beach person. I never imagined myself moving too far inland from the coast, no matter where I lived.

When I sought to pursue a graduate degree in engineering, I looked primarily for schools that had programs in water resources or coastal engineering. I applied and was accepted to a few coastal schools like University of Maryland and University of Rhode Island, but because I had not done as well as I would have liked in my undergraduate studies, there were no scholarship or fellowship opportunities for me. I ended up getting my Master’s degree in Environmental Engineering from the University of New Haven.

After 10 years in the engineering field, I had risen through the ranks and begun my ascent towards management. I had gone through project management training through my company and received my professional license, but I never felt fulfilled. I felt as if the dreams and desires that I had for my engineering career were elusive and always one more step away from me. Those 10 years were a wrestling match as I tried to discern where I would end up, both professionally and geographically.

I finally ended up doing what most pastor’s kids swear that they will never do: I became a pastor.

Over the 11 years since I became a pastor, there have been occasions here and there where I have thought and wondered about what would have happened had I stayed in engineering and had my career taken a different turn there. As I’ve begun to find my own place in full-time ministry and have begun to live into my strengths, my own fulfillment in what I do has increased and there aren’t many time when I have those moments of wondering.

But sometimes, they still come…

While we were in the Outer Banks last week, one of those moments came…

As we drove to the house where we were staying, we passed the Field Research Facility for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Duck, North Carolina. Those feelings started to bubble up within me and I thought about my dreams of working at the beach, of being part of projects that would be enjoyable and beneficial, both for me and for others.

On one of my morning runs, I ran down to the Field Research Facility and lingered at the sign that gave information about what happened there. As I looked into the distance at the tower that overlooked the Atlantic Ocean, I wondered what it would be like to live and work here, in what might be perceived as “paradise” to many people.

I let myself get lost in the moment and didn’t rush out of it too quickly, but eventually I came back to reality. I thought about the “what ifs” but I also thought about the “what is.”

I realized just how blessed that I am to be where I am. I realized that my journey had never been a straight line and had always taken anything but a linear pathway. I realized that the fulfillment that I was finding in what I do was a far cry from the lack of fulfillment in what I used to do once upon a time. I work with some incredible people and minister with and to some incredible people as well. I have opportunities that I can take advantage at this place and at this time that I might never have again, all by simply being a pastor.

Sure, there will always be days when the “what ifs” will creep up. I still have my engineering license and my degrees, I worked too hard to forget about them, but I’m not sure that I will ever work full-time in the field again.

There are times that I wish that I had multiple lifetimes to pursue all of my dreams and desires, but in the meantime, while someone’s trying to invent a DeLorean time machine, I’ll simply find contentment in knowing that I’m doing what I was created to do…….and I’ll smile!

A Week of Lasts

This is a week of lasts. Well, maybe it’s just one last. It will be the last week for my younger son being in junior kindergarten. In the Fall, it’s on to elementary school where he will join his brother, further complicating our life’s schedule and effectively helping me realize that I am getting old.

Amidst the week of lasts (well, one last), this whole season of life has been kind of a season of lasts for me. Pretty soon it will be the last time that I go to the house that was owned by my parents. Pretty soon I will get rid of some of the extraneous stuff that belonged to my parents. Pretty soon I will be closing a chapter of life as I try to move on and understand a little better what it means to adjust to the new normal.

Last week, I took some of the last remaining stuff that belonged to my parents from the townhouse. I don’t like to throw things away, especially when it’s something that’s perfectly good, but I knew that I had to do some of that. I brought some of my dad’s counseling books to a counseling center in Williamsburg that he was supposed to have worked for when he moved down. They were grateful for the donation and as I stood there talking to the receptionist, I wanted the words to keep coming because I felt like, in a way, the moment I left that office, I would be saying good-bye to yet another part of my father. I awkwardly lingered there at the desk in silence for a moment and I could tell that there was discomfort in the receptionist by the look in her eyes.

As I walked to my car, my heart sank a little bit. My dad’s heart was in counseling, he loved to help people. He loved to help people in ways that he had never been helped before. Those books were a part of him, and although I knew that I wouldn’t and couldn’t use them, it still pained me to get rid of them. At least they were going to a good place, unlike some of his awards and certifications that I threw in a dumpster later on.

My uncle and I drove to the transfer station and I watched as a few of the counseling certifications that my dad had earned were thrown into the dumpster. My heart sank a little bit more. I had kept the ones that I thought I might like to have, but these just didn’t seem as important to me. But still, I hate to throw things away and as I watched those plaques slide across the piles of garbage in that dumpster, I felt like another piece of my dad was being thrown from my life.

As my uncle and I were driving from place to place last week, he told me that every time he drove these roads that we were on, he thought of my dad. I echoed his sentiments as I had done my fair share of driving on these roads myself. He was verbally working out my parents’ timeline in Williamsburg as we drove. Was your mom really just in the house for 2 months before she was diagnosed with cancer? Yes. She only lasted another 6 months after that. And after that, Dad only lasted another 6 months before he was unable to care for himself. He barely celebrated a year of living in a house that was his own.

Sometime in the not too distant future (I hope), I will sell my parents’ townhouse and there will be very little reason to drive down those roads anymore. I can still visit my relatives in Williamsburg, but it might get harder before it gets easier. Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, place is important and we can associate an awful lot with a place. Williamsburg, for all of its advantages and wonderments, reminds me of death. The death of my parents. The death of their dreams. The death of my dreams for them. As hard as I try to find new meaning for that place, there’s a lot working against it.

The one advantage of endings is that they can lead to new beginnings. That’s what I’m hoping for. I don’t know what’s around the bend, but I hope that it’s better than what the last few years have held. I don’t want to wish life away or hastily move through moments of growth and learning, but I am longing for peace and I’m hoping that it’s not as elusive and far off as it’s seemed to have been. Here’s hoping that these weeks of last things might lead to weeks of new things as well.

Reentry

spaceship-apollo-12After being away on and off for the last few weeks, today is the day of reentry. After reading about the number of disasters that have happened when something went wrong during reentry into the earth’s atmosphere, I’m glad that the danger isn’t quite as significant for me in my reentry into the reality of life as it is for those reentering the earth’s atmosphere.

Even though the danger isn’t as significant, there is still danger of burning up. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ve figure out a graceful way to reenter reality after being engaged with think tanks and big thinking for the last few weeks. Ideas are ideas and they remain as such in our heads and even on the papers on which we write, the challenge always becomes the translation of ideas into reality. How do we take the concepts and ideas that we have heard, thought of, and even contemplated on for days, weeks, and even months, and translate them to reality?

When astronauts enter back into the earth’s atmosphere, they often travel at supersonic speeds, if we do that upon reentry of the reality of our lives, the likelihood of us burning up seems to be greater. A gradual reentry seems to be the most likely solution. Taking it easy and taking everything in stride is a much more viable alternative to jumping in headfirst, at least it is in ministry.

If not taking it easy, at least taking it with a healthy dose of reality. There is a tendency when those in ministry spend time dealing with lofty ideals to become as idealistic as the thoughts that they’ve been thinking about. I think about Moses coming down off of the mountain after communing with God. He’s got the two stone tablets that God gave to him and when he says what has become of the Israelites, he tosses them on the ground, breaking them.

I don’t think I can count the number of times that I’ve had my own “Moses” moments, especially upon reentry. Reality has a way of slapping you in the face, jarring you back from your dreams, and splashing the cold water of what’s really going on in your face. It’s inevitable, but you can at least be ready for it and prepare yourself.

As easy as it is to be discouraged upon reentry, it’s also easy to completely forget about the dreams that you had while you were on the mountain. Some ministry environments don’t leave room for that, others do. It’s important to find places where you can share those dreams and visions, the ones that ignited your heart while you spent time in the presence of God. They won’t be well received by all, but if you choose carefully, your dreams and visions can help to ignite the dreams and visions of those around you. Just like the need to ease into things, you might need to share gently as well, being fully aware that some things will be harder to translate.

I’m not sure if it will ever feel natural for me to ease back into things again, but as I build relationships with people and get to know those with whom I can easily share the vision, it makes the reentry less painful.

Dreams

martin-luther-king-jr50 years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech (read King’s speech here) on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. during the March on Washington.  A little less than 10 years later, I was born.  Although I was born in Brooklyn, New York, it wasn’t long after that my family moved into the suburbs of Connecticut into a fairly affluent, bedroom community of New York City.  We lived in a house owned by the church where my father was the pastor, otherwise, we would have never been able to afford to live in such a town.

But I did not experience poverty.  I did not experience prejudice.  I did not experience racism.  I did not even have a taste of what King and so many other African Americans have tasted and experienced.  I never drove my car at night with fear of being pulled over, beaten, and arrested, or worse yet, strung up.  I was never passed over for a job because of the color of my skin.  Instead of poverty and prejudice, I knew privilege.

King had a dream, a vision, about what our country could be.  King had a dream that equality could happen.  In the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict and the senseless murder of an Australian college student, I wonder how much of King’s dream we have realized.  What would he say if he were here today?  Would he feel like we have made strides in the half a century since he stood on those steps and spoke to the masses?

One of the most important lessons for me to learn and remember is the price of freedom.  I often wonder if we think about it as much as we should.  Thousands have fought and died in order to preserve the freedoms in our country.  What is our response when we think about that sacrifice?  Many have given their lives, whether just with time or with their blood as well, in order that we might experience the freedom of equality in this country.  Have we stopped to think about those sacrifices?  If we have not ever benefited from those sacrifices, how do we respond to those who need to realize those benefits?  There is a price paid for us to experience salvation, and that price was paid by Jesus Christ.  What is our response to that sacrifice?

Freedom isn’t free, it always comes at a price.  Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his life in order that his fellow African Americans might experience the privileges that so many others in this country have experienced.  I wonder what he would think about the progress we have made.  In some ways, and to some perspectives, it might seem as if we’ve made some strides.  To others, it probably feels more like three steps forward and two steps back.  What do you think?